The Not Very Odd Wines Of Chris Hanna

12 September 2015
Chris Hanna

Chris Hanna

I’m going to take a post and write about some wines that are neither obscure nor especially unusual, and it’s for a very important reason. In fact, it’s for the most important reason to drink a wine. More on that in a moment.

Chris Hanna, the engaging president of Hanna Winery & Vineyards, recently hosted a wine tasting and dinner at Ravinia, one of Chicagoland’s loveliest outdoor concert venues. The torrential downpour we suffered throughout the event must have come as a bit of a shock to this Sonoma winemaker and cookbook author accustomed to drought conditions in California.

The worrisome drought was the topic of the audience’s first question for Hanna. Fortunately, the dry conditions haven’t caused her vineyards to shrivel. “The premium wine grape crop is of such value,” she explained, “they’re not going to cut off our water. Yet. If we have one more year [of drought], we may have to meter,” she added in a slightly more ominous tone. But at least for this vintage, Napa and Sonoma wine lovers have no need to panic, she reassured us.

Hanna made her first vintage of wine “at the tender age of 12,” when her family had 12 acres of vines in the Russian River Valley, which, at the time, “were in the middle of nowhere.” She expanded Hanna Winery’s holdings to 600 acres today, split among vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the warmer Alexander Valley farther to the north and farther from the cooling influence of the Pacific, and the high-elevation Mayacamas Mountains yet farther inland.

Hanna Winery wines at RaviniaHanna’s early winemaking start now pays hefty dividends. Her 2014 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, for example, gets everything right. Hanna notes that in Sonoma, “high-tone flavors don’t get baked out by the sun,” and she maximizes the Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent freshness by picking the grapes at night and fermenting in stainless steel. The wine had that zesty, grassy, minerally aroma I love in a Sauvignon Blanc. It tasted focused and bright, with lively grapefruity acids and edges rounded by a bit of malolactic fermentation. It sliced through some rich Boucheron cheese like a knife. An excellent value for $19 a bottle.

The 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay displayed similar attention to balance. I’ve frequently hear from people scarred by butter bombs that they don’t care for California Chardonnay, or even any Chardonnay at all. I can empathize — I once had a harrowing experience with some Toasted Head. And indeed, this Chardonnay has some wood and butter to it, imparted by aging in French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation. But this wine exhibited beautiful balance, with ripely peachy fruit and broad, lively acids. The Chardonnay felt fresh in spite of its oak and butter notes, and I loved it. A fine splurge for $29.

The finesse of the 2013 Alexander Cabernet Sauvignon impressed me, too. Actually a Bordeaux-style blend of 77% Cabernet, 17% Malbec and 6% Merlot, this wine undergoes a hot and fast fermentation (slow and cool is more common) to avoid harsh, dry tannins. And indeed those tannins were supple, especially considering the wine’s youth. It had a delightfully rich, jammy aroma; big, cool fruit and a shot of black pepper spice. It’s not inexpensive at $42, but this wine has the power and grace to back up that price tag.

Unexpectedly, my favorite of the evening was the 2013 Bismark Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel. Hanna “challenged [herself] to become a Zin believer” and worked hard to create a Zinfandel vineyard on a steep and rocky slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. Although a pain for humans to work, such terrain tends to work beautifully for wine. Grape clusters in this vineyard are tiny, Hanna explained, which means she can get “so much extraction that you Chris Hanna at dinner in Ravinianever get on flat ground.” Indeed, the wine was dark, and it smelled of dusky dried black fruit. Zinfandels can all too easily become overly jammy and ponderous, but this one started cool and clean, moving from big fruit to big spice to some refined tannins on the finish. Something savory underneath added complexity. I don’t drink much Zinfandel, I must admit, but if I could spend $64 on a bottle, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this one.

It was a delight to taste these wines both alone and with a delicious al fresco dinner, during which their acids helped them work well with a range of different foods.

Which brings me to why, as Odd Bacchus, I would write about these wines at all. To be honest, it’s because I wanted to. I love drinking the unusual and obscure, obviously, but it seemed unnecessarily doctrinaire to deny myself the pleasure of these expertly crafted Sonoma wines.

Wine should always be a pleasure, and I can’t think of a more valid, compelling reason to choose a particular bottle than simply “because I wanted to.” Maybe you’re drinking Chardonnay when you “should” be drinking Malbec. Or maybe you’re drinking, ahem, Sonoma Zinfandel when you should be drinking Slovak Dunaj. But life is too short to shame yourself about the wine you want to drink. “Because I want to” is all the justification you need.

Note: These wines and the accompanying dinner were provided free of charge.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Chardonnay Shame

21 February 2015
Sunday asado in Mendoza

A Sunday asado in Mendoza

The wine drinking culture in America is so much more open than it used to be. Notions such as “sweet wines are for amateurs” hold less weight than ever, and yet, it’s still surprisingly common to encounter people who feel some shame about the wine they like to drink.

I recently had the fortune to spend some time in Mendoza, Argentina, where I met Meredith and Jeff, a friendly American couple, at a Sunday asado. As our plates were filled with beef and pork and sausages and sweetbreads, our conversation turned to wine, as most conversations in Mendoza do.

“We’ve been so impressed by the wine here,” Jeff said, and I certainly did not disagree. I chose the wineries I visited carefully, but even so, the refined craftsmanship, ripe fruit and focus of almost all the wines I tried had left me thoroughly impressed as well. The quality to price ratio of wine in Mendoza is incredibly high.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Meredith said with a sigh. “But I think we’re going home with more Chardonnay than Malbec! I know I’m not supposed to like it, but…” and she shrugged, seemingly embarrassed about her taste in wine.

Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata

Her remark pushed my buttons. “What?” I exclaimed, a little too loudly. “Of course you like it. The Chardonnays here are beautiful!”

And they are. I remembered the 2012 Catena Alta Chardonnay I tasted in the Mayan pyramid-shaped winery of Catena Zapata: “Ample spice balancing creamy fruit —  well-integrated wood, spice and fruit,” I wrote in my notes. The 2013 Chardonnay I tried in the historic Terrazas de los Andes winery had a luscious mouthfeel, zesty acids and focused white-pepper spice. A delight. At The Vines Resort, I tried a lively 2014 Chardonnay straight from the steel tank, their first attempt at an unoaked Chardonnay. The fruit tasted surprisingly rich, balanced by some sharp, gingery spice.

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

And I especially loved the two single-vineyard Chardonnays I tasted at Viña Cobos, the winery of famed winemaker Paul Hobbs. The gorgeous 2013 Bramare Marchiori Vineyard Chardonnay had very ripe fruit and sweet notes of caramel and vanilla, but bright acids kept it from being heavy. Even the entry-level 2014 Felino Chardonnay was delicious, with some tropical fruit notes, a focused shaft of white-pepper spice and something savory on the finish.

Malbec or no Malbec, how could someone not like fruity, well-balanced Chardonnays like these? I told Meredith that she was absolutely right to like the Chardonnays, and, fully surrendering to the button Meredith had pushed, I demanded that she proudly own her preference: “I want you to say, ‘Yes! I like Mendoza Chardonnay, and there is nothing wrong with that!'” Though slightly startled, Meredith, to her credit, did exactly what I asked.

I had bad boundaries with Meredith, and I’m going to have bad boundaries with you as well. Don’t let anyone tell you that the wine you like is wrong, even if the person telling you that is yourself.

Postcard From New Mexico

28 August 2013
Ponderosa Chardonnay

Ponderosa Chardonnay

Who knew New Mexican wines could be so delicious? I’ve tasted quite a few so far, and it hasn’t been a case of unearthing a few gems in a sea of mediocrity. The vast majority of the wines I’ve sampled have been well-crafted and delicious enough for me to want a second glass. In fact, the only true disappointment of the trip has been a mouth-puckeringly tart Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend from France’s Loire Valley!

What a contrast to the Chardonnay pictured above, produced by Ponderosa Valley Vineyards. I drank this delightful wine over a relaxing al fresco lunch at the surprisingly pleasant Museum Café, set between Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The Ponderosa Chardonnay had a lovely green-gold color and a fresh, limey aroma. It started sweet, with a note of honeysuckle, but the wine was admirably balanced with gingery spice and bright acids. Paired with some duck flautas, the spiciness of the wine really jumped out.

This Chardonnay retails for about $17.50, according to the Ponderosa website, which seems like quite a fine deal to me. If I see a bottle in a store, you can be sure I’ll be snapping it right up.

Summery Wines From The Heel Of The Boot

5 July 2013

CanteleItay’s DOC system doesn’t always work as originally planned, most notably evidenced by the rise of Super Tuscans, which long had to be labeled as simple table wine in spite of their high quality. But Tuscany isn’t the only part of Italy which had to rethink its classification system. Sine 1992, a host of regions have adopted the IGT category (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) in an attempt to deal with the embarrassing number of Vino da Tavola wines selling for much higher prices than the supposedly superior DOC bottlings.

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, was one such region to buy into the IGT system, and the Salento IGT encompasses the entire peninsula. This more flexible classification system, along with increased foreign demand for wine in the 1990s, led to significant improvements in Pugliese viticulture, though even today, less than a quarter of Puglia’s wine production is sold by the bottle, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The rest is sold in bulk, making its way into vermouth, cheap blended wine and brandy.

Nevertheless, the reputation of the Pugliese wine that does make it into bottles is steadily improving, as innovative winemakers focus on lower yields and high-quality grape varieties, both local and international. The large Cantele Winery is one such venture. The family has been in the wine business since just after World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Canteles started buying their own vineyards and growing their own grapes.

I had the fortune to receive complimentary samples of three of Cantele’s wines, two of which demonstrated the success and value of the IGT classification system. The World Atlas of Wine has unkind words for IGT Chardonnay del Salento, calling these wines “anodyne shelf-fillers,” but I certainly enjoyed the 2011 Cantele Chardonnay del Salento. If you like your whites bright and un-oaky, you’ll enjoy it too.  Friends with whom I tasted this wine had plenty to say about its aroma, calling it “bready,” “creamy and tart,” and “peary, but not like a mealy Bartlett pear, it’s more of a Bosc.” Another taster, less sure of his aroma-detecting capabilities, asked, “Does it smell nutty? Or am I having a stroke?”

I also got notes of pear in the aroma (variety uncertain), along with some heady honeysuckle. It tasted crisp and juicy, with a bit of honey on the finish along with some gingery spice. Lively and light on its feet, I suspect most people would never guess this was a Chardonnay. It’s a perfect choice for a hot summer afternoon. According to Wine Searcher, it retails for an average of $12 — an excellent value.

The second IGT wine we sampled was a rosé of Negroamaro, an ancient variety that is a specialty of Puglia. “Negroamaro” translates as either “black bitter” or “black black,” depending on whether you work with Italian or Latin and Greek. The second translation, albeit repetitious, seems most likely, since this variety originated in Greece, arriving in Italy with Greek colonists in the 6th or 7th century B.C., according to the Oxford Companion.

I’d never tried a rosé made from Negroamaro, and so it was with some excitement I poured myself a glass of the 2011 Cantele Negroamaro Rosato. Straight out of the fridge, it didn’t have much of a bouquet — only when it warmed up a bit did I detect some red berries, chalk and a hint of something floral. On the palate, however, it offered plenty of sunny, strawberry fruit and some bracing minerals, reminiscent of pink aspirin. It felt sprightly throughout, and I liked the spicy lift at the end. Selling for just $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher, it’s a fun and unique choice for a picnic or barbeque.

The third wine in the sample was not an IGT — it conforms to the stricter regulations of Salice Salentino, a landlocked DOC right in the middle of the Salento peninsula. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in the Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the 2009 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

Since Cantele produces about two million bottles each year, according to its website, you have a fighting chance of finding one or more of its well-priced wines in your local shop. I’m certainly going to keep my eye out for them. And if any of you folks have sampled Cantele’s 100% Verdeca, let me know — I’m itching to give it a try.

Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased Kluge’s winery, as well as the front lawn of her palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

Some Trump wines worked better than others. Calling the rather tart Chardonnay “Chablis-style” was a bit of an exaggeration; it lacked Chablis’ steely, minerally, focused vigor. The Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, and Bordeaux-style blends were all pleasant enough, but it was the sparkling wines, produced in the traditional Champenoise method, that really caught my attention. The Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) had a strawberry and honey nose, a touch of sweet apples on the palate, and ample but elegantly small bubbles. Berry notes marked the aromas of the Rosé as well. This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had some currants and yeast to it, along with those same delightful bubbles. The Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir) had an almost jammy nose, but lemony acids, some yeastiness and a dry finish kept it balanced. Well, I suppose it makes sense that Trump’s Champagne-style wines were the most successful!

A two-minute drive away, Blenheim Vineyards has a dramatic vaulted tasting room overlooking a wide tract of vineyards. The space alone makes a visit worthwhile, particularly since you can bring your own picnic to enjoy with some Blenheim wine on the terrace. All of Blenheim’s wines had very prominent, food-friendly acids, and they would surely be fun with some picnic fare. But tasted without food, most of the wines were a little over-acidic for my taste. I did enjoy the Viognier, with its honeysuckle nose, tropical fruit flavors and limey acids, and the light-bodied Cabernet Franc, with surprising aromas of vanilla, dark fruit flavors and very bright acids. I wish I could have tasted these wines with food, because I suspect the acids would have felt more in balance.

Next Up: The four wineries you absolutely shouldn’t miss in Virginia.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 1

25 July 2012

Philadelphia may mix a mean cocktail, but the wine scene isn’t too shabby either. I was delighted to discover that most restaurants I visited had something unusual on their wine-by-the-glass menus, and I availed myself of the opportunity to try a number of deliciously odd vintages.

For your vicarious pleasure, a six-course tasting menu complete with wine pairings:

COURSE 1: Languedoc Blanc de Blancs

To start, a non-vintage Jean-Louis Denois Brut Blanc de Blancs from France’s Languedoc region, sampled at Le Bec Fin. A wine from this rather humble region seemed almost out of place at this relentlessly formal restaurant, where a bust of Marie Antoinette peers unironically at diners through cascades of crystal chandeliers. Even today, inconsistent Languedoc produces vast seas of boring vin ordinaire as well as exciting terroir-focused varietals (unusual in a country known mostly for blends).

In keeping with Languedoc fashion, this varietal sparkling wine is 100% Chardonnay, as indicated by the words “Blanc de Blancs” on the label. My initial feelings of suspicion were quickly assuaged. The wine had a rather green aroma, and it started tight and tart on the palate before opening up into flavors of apples and yeast. Bubbles felt prickly but elegantly small. Delicious. It cut right through the richness of some seared Hudson Valley foie gras, making for an excellent pairing. Even so, it’s hard to get over the eye-popping $19 per-flute price tag. That’s the average price for an entire bottle, according to Wine Searcher! Well, I suppose Le Bec Fin has to pay for all that gilt somehow.

COURSE 2: Grüner Veltliner

Next, a refreshing glass of Austria’s most famous variety, Grüner Veltliner, sipped at farm-to-table sensation Talula’s Garden. This food-friendly variety has a murky and fascinating history. Genetic testing revealed that one of its parents was Traminer, but the other parent remained a mystery for some time, until (at least according to Wikipedia) its other parent was found in the year 2000. Only a single vine of this parent variety remained, barely clinging to life in an overgrown pasture. Apparently, there are plans to try cultivating this mystery variety in the near future, and I can’t help but feel pretty darn excited about that.


A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 2

27 June 2012

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, I still hadn’t quite put all the pieces together. How was it that Arizona, of all places, was coming up with these numerous high-quality wines?

In the professional and lively tasting room of Page Springs Cellars, an assistant winemaker named Matt pointed out the obvious: “We have ample water from the creek outside, and there’s an aquifer below.” He continued describing the terroir, how the rocky hillsides were well-drained with poor soil (the soil shouldn’t be too fertile — you want the vines to struggle a bit). The weather was hot during the day, of course, but at night, the high-elevation vineyards stayed nice and cool. Indeed, I had cozied up to my fireplace the evening before.

In short, the Page Springs terroir is pretty darn great. Most of the fruit, however, still seems to come from Arizona’s southeast, which is at a similar elevation.

Matt thought Malvasia might become one of Arizona’s signature varieties, and my tasting at Page Springs Cellars certainly supported that theory. I sampled that along with a number of other excellent wines, mostly Rhône varietals and blends, the quality of which no longer came as a surprise. If you only have time to visit one winery while in the Sedona area, this should be it.

Here’s a rundown of my tasting. Again, all the fruit from these wines comes from southeastern Arizona, not the Page Springs area, unless otherwise noted:

2010 Bonita Springs Malvasia: Like all the other wines I sampled at Page Springs Cellars, this one came with an eye-catching black and white label. The nose had big fruit and a touch of flowers, and juicy acids balanced subtle flavors of peach and pineapple. $28

2010 La Serrana: Try this blend of 50% Viognier from the Arizona Stronghold vineyard and 50% Rousanne from the Colibri vineyard as soon as you can. According to the Page Springs Cellars website, “A portion of the [Colibri] vineyard was burned to the ground. Thirty-foot high flames cooked the vineyard on three sides and damaged many other vines.” The wine had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet. $30


A Little Chicago In The Fluteau

6 June 2012

Although drinking Champagne (from France, with a capital “C”) is all too unusual in my household, the beverage itself could hardly be considered obscure. Everyone has heard of it, and I’m pretty sure anyone reading these words likes to drink it. But even Champagne has its odd side.

Most Champagnes we encounter in the United States tend to be non-vintage, brut (dry but not austere), and Négociant Manipulant (basically, sourced from a range of different vineyards in the region). I always like to seek out the more terroir-influenced Récoltant Manipulant Champagnes, otherwise known as grower Champagnes. You can tell the difference by looking at the tiny serial number on the label, which will say NM or RM, or, rarely, any of five other letter combinations. It’s France; they like their wine complicated.

In any case, while shopping at Binny’s for a sparkling wine to use for our wedding toast last year, I came across a most tempting bottle of 2004 Château Fluteau Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs. My Odd Bacchus sensors lit up like a Feuerzangenbowle — here was a vintage Champagne that was also grower. And that wasn’t all: 2004 is the year my partner (now husband) and I met! It was too romantic and too unusual to pass up.

When I researched the wine, I learned that it had yet more wonderfully unusual qualities. (more…)

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